Hikers surprised at missing woman’s route
October 5, 2005
EAGLE COUNTY – People who are familiar with the routes up Mount of the Holy Cross say they are surprised missing hiker Michelle Vanek, undertaking her first fourteener, took an unconventional, circuitous and partially unmarked route to the top the day she disappeared.”I’m aghast,” said Dawes Wilson of Vail, who said he has climbed Mount of the Holy Cross three or four times. “I wouldn’t go up Holy Cross, even the normal route, at all as my first fourteener.”Vanek, 35, has been missing since Sept. 24, when she and an unidentified hiking companion followed the Halo route to the 14,005-foot peak. They planned to descend on the more-popular North Ridge route, said Tim Cochrane of Vail Mountain Rescue Group.The Halo route is only taken by about 10 percent of Holy Cross summiters, Cochrane said. “Unless you are an experience mountaineer, you don’t want to be on the Halo route,” Cochrane said.Friends say this was Vanek’s first fourteener. She was described as an experienced triathlete. Her companion had “extensive knowledge” of fourteeners but had never climbed Holy Cross, said Capt. Bill Kaufman of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.The Forest Service encourages first-time fourteener climbers to follow the North Ride/Half Moon Trail up and down, said Don Dressler, trails supervisor for the Holy Cross Ranger District. “If it’s someone’s first fourteener, (the Halo route is) not something I would recommend,” he said.
Dressler said the Halo route is considered more difficult simply because its less traveled, unmarked at the top and requires a lot of scrambling on rocks. Wilson also said the Halo routes terrain is more difficult to traverse, involving a lot of scrambling and talus walking.In Gerry Roachs Colorados Fourteeners, both the Halo and North Ridge routes are classified as Class 2, or off-trail hiking. On a scale of 1 to 5, Class 5 is most difficult.The Halo route is nine miles one way, longer compared to the popular North Ridge route, at six miles. But the North Ridge route requires more elevation gain because it goes over Half Moon Pass.But the North Ridge route is marked with cairns above timber line, widely used by other hikers and more pronounced due to its heavy use. The Halo route is not marked after it passes the Notch Mountain shelter.The search for Vanek was called off Saturday after a day in which more than 220 people scoured the mountain for signs of the mother of four. The search had been sustained, at lower levels, using helicopters, dogs and foot searches for a week after her companion reported her missing.Halo routeThe Halo route follows a ridge clockwise from Notch Mountain around the Bowl of Tears basin and eventually reaches the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross from the southwest. Vanek and her companion were planning to descend via the North Ridge/Half Moon Trail route, but Vanek, who was not carrying a map, split from her hiking companion about 200 vertical feet from the summit after she said she was tired, Cochrane said.They split on the saddle of the Holy Cross Ridge between an unnamed 13,381-foot peak and Mount of the Holy Cross.Her companion continued to the summit of Holy Cross and stayed for less than 30 minutes, Cochrane said. The plan was for Vanek to bypass the summit, traversing north to the west of the peak and meet up with her companion on the North Ridge, their exit route, Cochrane said. If she stayed at the same altitude, that distance would be about a quarter-mile from where they split up.When her companion descended from the peak on the northbound North Ridge, he didnt find Vanek. He then backtracked south to where he last saw her, Cochrane said, but was unable to find her.Following the weeklong search, one theory espoused by rescuers is that Vanek went west off the ridgeline, following a snowfield into the Cross Creek drainage, where there is a rugged area that consists of dead-end ledges among 50- to 75-foot pine trees that block views of search helicopters. Searching the cliff bands would require experienced climbers to drive bolts into the mountain and repel from ledge to ledge.Aerial search may resumeVail Mountain Rescue searchers are reviewing results from the massive search of 30 teams of searchers on Saturday and may resume aerial searches Wednesday and Thursday, Cochrane said. He said his group will submit a report on the search to the Sheriffs Office next week.Cochrane said two spots where helicopters will concentrate on when they return for searches are the Angel Couloir on the northeast side of the mountain and the Harvey Lake area, several miles southwest of Mount of the Holy Cross. Those leads are based on evidence turned up in the recent search.Kaufman said Vanek only said she was tired, but those symptoms may have been indicative of mountain sickness.In severe cases of acute mountain sickness, fluid collects in the lungs, causing extreme shortness of breath and further decreasing oxygenation; swelling may also occur in the brain, causing confusion, according to a National Institutes of Health Web site. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea and headache.Longtime valley resident Norma Broten of Vail, who has summitted Mount of the Holy Cross several times and worked for Vail Mountain Rescue, said she can understand how a decision can be made to split apart, even if it violates a cardinal rule of hiking fourteeners.A basic rule is you dont split up, but weve done that many times, she said. Ive been on both sides: when Ive felt good and gone ahead, and then when I havent felt good and told others to go ahead.She said she could understand the desire to take the more exposed Halo route. She said its a matter of comfort level.Some people like the exhiliation and beauty, and the views supercede fear, she said.Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 604, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado